Craig describes how a charisma-led culture has blinded a multi-national technology firm to its failing performance.

“Since my resignation, my successor has left on stress-related illness. His replacement lasted six weeks.”

On a damp autumn morning I found Craig stirring his cup of coffee, aptly perched at a retro video game table. I pulled up a PC tower-cum-seat in the ramshackle coffee shop, which was a metaphor for the story to follow; technology enveloped by chaos. Craig explained the background to the organisation that was the source of his undiscussable experience; a multi-national technology firm where he spent 13 years in their sales and marketing division, which had grown from 80 to over 1000 people during that time.

As Craig began to tell his story he revealed the charisma-led, heavily political culture of the organisation. He described the President as a great speaker who would organise jazz nights so he could play piano to his staff. To be successful you had to fit into the play hard/work hard culture. When I asked what was undiscussable, he set the scene by highlighting that despite there being an Equal Opportunities policy there was only one female member of senior management. Career progression was dependent on listening to whispers and gossip about jobs that came up; there were no formal processes.

The company had expanded from a background in software, and the bulk of hardware issues were dealt with by external consultants. The consultants came, they left, and the knowledge went with them. “The sense of internal expertise was minimal”, Craig told me. “It was dysfunctional”. Over the years sales dropped massively, but the company still regards itself as successful. “Targets are self-set and have become more conservative. They’re not reviewing the failing parts of the business”, Craig maintains.

Craig described the new President as an alpha male character, who was aggressive and dominating. His appointment seemed to reinforce the “socially stilted, old-boy network” of the organisation, and a “reactive, emotional culture”. Craig pointed out a lack of alignment in decision making. With his job requiring frequent global travel to factories, he found himself under pressure from his line manager’s superior to cut his travel costs. At the same time his line manager wanted him to visit more factories abroad. He said people were powerless to talk about such paradoxical situations until they resigned, as there was no time for reflection. And people did resign because of this.

“Mission statements were never communicated, evaluated and justified…. The lack of transparency meant that processes weren’t followed. Documenting processes wasn’t even viewed as important, so there was always an unwillingness to be held accountable. There was no opportunity or direction at a personal or organisational level.”

A major elephant was lurking when Craig was asked to attend a mandatory training course on employment law. The unstated intention, he said, was to make him aware of his legal responsibilities if he was to find himself in a case of constructive dismissal. “The subtext was ‘follow this practice or the company is in trouble.’”

Six months on, someone who had been working in a parallel position with Craig for five years was suddenly made his line manager. Many of Craig’s responsibilities were absorbed by his new line manager and Craig became a mere reference point of expertise, with minimal projects of his own to manage. To address the issue, Craig contacted a new member of HR, hoping that their relational distance from the management network would support his case. In agreement that his position was problematic, the HR Officer contacted the manager in charge of restructuring. A negotiated pay-off was offered within a week, which, much to his manager’s surprise, Craig accepted. However, standards don’t seem to have improved since. “Since my negotiated resignation, my successor has left on stress-related illness. His replacement lasted six weeks”, Craig explained.

After Craig left, a new Chief Executive was appointed who Craig’s former manager had come into conflict with. Nine months in post, and Craig’s former manager was sent on gardening leave to prevent him from exposing sensitive information, but he is still being contracted by the company. “So he’s happy, but this is still a big undiscussable”, Craig explained.

At the start of Craig’s term, the product branch his department represented had performed particularly well in that trading year. Following this, it was decided that the branch was to be brought into the main corporation. The fluid management structures of the branch were reified, but without the adoption of visible and open management practices. “Now they are releasing products that nobody has heard of. Year after year the company has made losses.” He explained that “if you fit the network characteristics you can be seen as successful in a failing company. It was the culture of the parent body that corrupted it.”

“Being transparent is the only way for an organisation to be powerful in its environment.”

I asked him what would change things. “It would take someone who fits that model and understands that the culture is too inward looking. The antidote to charismatic leaders is process. You need ego to drive things forward. But it can become reactive and maintain the status quo. You need logical process to bring about an equitable and competitively challenging environment. The company became responsive to threat of failure, rather than risk. You need to conflate the two. There is no opportunity to grow without risk.”
The experience has informed his career direction since leaving. Craig is now studying and teaching cultural studies and brings a set of beliefs to his work. “Transparency, openness and allowing organisations to breathe are the ways to instil meritocracy in order to grow. Being transparent is the only way for an organisation to be powerful in its environment.”